A Utah lawmaker wants to force clergy to report confessions of child sex abuse to police

Posted at 5:01 PM, Jul 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-17 01:08:22-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah law currently says a perpetrator's confession of abuse to a member of the clergy can remain confidential.

But a bill is being drafted in the Utah State Legislature to remove that exception.

"I have a huge issue when those religious institutions aren’t obligated to report child sex abuse," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. "I want to take that privilege away."

Rep. Romero said her bill would make it mandatory that ecclesiastical leaders report any disclosure of child sex abuse to law enforcement to launch an investigation.

"My concern is getting somebody off the street that shouldn’t be on the street, regardless of if they confessed to a clergy member or regardless if someone they know told a clergy member," she said. "Regardless of what that religious institution is, it needs to be investigated by law enforcement."

Other states have explored eliminating the exception as religious institutions have grappled with abuse scandals.

"Within our predominant religion here, within Catholicism, within all these institutions," Rep. Romero said. "People covered it up."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful influence on Capitol Hill, declined to comment to FOX 13 about the proposed legislation. The faith has said "Church leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities" and "no Church leader should ever dismiss a report of abuse or counsel a member not to report criminal activity."

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said it would like to review the bill's language and meet with Rep. Romero.

"The diocese already requires reporting abuse to law enforcement. For many, part of the penance for confessions of abuse also includes self-reporting to law enforcement," said Jean Hill, the diocese's government liaison.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said it fully supported the proposed bill.

"It’s a loophole, they go and confess their sin and believe they are absolved and then go and rape another child. That’s wrong," said Judy Larson. "If you’re a mandatory reporter, you should be a mandatory reporter. That’s it. I and SNAP fully support it."

The Truth & Transparency Foundation, formerly the MormonLeaks website, launched a petition last year in an effort to pressure the Utah State Legislature to remove the exception.

Rep. Romero said she is expecting pushback as she introduces her bill ahead of the 2020 legislative session in January. She is still contemplating what kind of punishment would be imposed for priests, bishops, rabbis or other religious figures who don't report abuse. Rep. Romero said she is willing to meet with religious leaders to hear their concerns.

"We’re still allowing people to use a religious institution to confess their sin, but yet they continue to go on and hurt other children," she said. "I have a problem with that."